Clem Sunter

Hedgehogs and foxes

2009-10-28 08:39

The Greek poet, Archilochus, said it first circa 650 BC: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." The British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, expanded on the concept in 1953 in a celebrated essay. He nominated Aristotle as a fox and Plato as a hedgehog. Then in 2001, Chantell Ilbury and I published The Mind of a Fox in June and a little later in October Jim Collins came out with Good to Great.

We took contrary positions. Chantell and I said that because so many factors are uncertain and beyond the control of an individual business, it was better to have the flexibility, adaptability and speed of response of a fox. Jim, on the other hand, asserted: "Those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their hedgehog nature to drive toward what we came to call a Hedgehog Concept for their companies." He dismissed foxes as "scattered, diffused and inconsistent".

Enter Philip Tetlock, a professor at the Haas Business School which is attached to Berkeley in California. He published a book in 2005 called Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Over 25 years, he studied 82 000 forecasts made by experts against real world outcomes. He concluded that expert predictions barely beat random guesses, but "if you want good, stable long-term performance, you're better off with a fox. If you're up for a real roller-coaster ride, which might make you fabulously wealthy or leave you broke, go hedgehog. Hedgehogs are sometimes way, way out front. But they can also be way, way off".

Those last two sentences really sum it up. Successful hedgehogs can leave an everlasting footprint on humanity providing they're right with their big ideas - Albert Einstein with his theory of relativity, Henry Ford with his idea of a cheap, mass-produced car for the masses and Charles Darwin with his principle of natural selection.

But, ironically, it's Darwin who inspired us to argue the case of the fox. For he stated that the survival of the species rests on its ability to adapt to the changes in nature taking place around it. If you think about it, most species last millions of years because nature changes relatively slowly. Yet how many businesses last 100 years? The business environment changes much more dramatically and quickly than nature. Hence our insistence that alongside a vision, a mission statement and hedgehogs seeking an alignment to both, there have to be foxes who constantly question the relevance and solvency of the business in light of the changing context.

In other words, it's about a balance between the two species: neither can do without the other (which is more than a hedgehog would grant). The problem we have is when a vision is elevated to the position of a religious dogma which no one in an organisation is permitted to challenge. Hedgehogs have a tendency to move in this direction, so they have to be checked by foxes requesting an open debate on alternative futures that could compel a revision of strategy. The big idea may well survive but in a modified form.

The tumultuous times we are currently experiencing are giving traction to our argument on behalf of the foxes. If you Google "hedgehogs and foxes" in South Africa, you will see that our website ranks fourth; but more importantly four places ahead of the hedgehog concept. The age of the fox is dawning.

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